Understanding Opioid Addiction

Learn about opioid dependence and addiction.

Page updated on Jul 8, 2021 at 10:57 AM

Why are opioids addictive?

PillsAccording to SAMHSA, repeated use of opioids, combined with their euphoric properties and increasing tolerance levels, lead to addiction.  Addiction is a brain disease defined by compulsive use of a chemical despite negative consequences.  Substance use disorders occur when a chemical is used in an unhealthy way.  A great deal of research is going into why opioids, nicotine and alcohol are addictive.  Such efforts will hopefully result in better addiction prevention and treatment. Read more about opioid misuse and addiction at MedlinePlus

What are some factors for dependency?

Everyone is at risk.  There are many risk factors for addiction including poverty, drug availability, family history and exposure to violence. Learn more at www.drugabuse.gov

What are the signs of opioid misuse?

In addition to the serious risks of addiction, misuse and overdose, the CDC reports the use of prescription opioids can have a number of side effects, even when taken as directed:

  • Tolerance—meaning you might need to take more of the medication for the same pain relief
  • Physical dependence—meaning you have symptoms of withdrawal when the medication is stopped
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Constipation
  • Nausea, vomiting and dry mouth
  • Sleepiness and dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Low levels of testosterone that can result in lower sex drive, energy and strength
  • Itching and sweating

How does opioid addiction affect the body?

Opioids affect many body systems including the stress-response, hormone, pain, digestive and mood systems. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids act by attaching to and activating opioid receptor proteins, which are found on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract and other organs in the body. When these drugs attach to their receptors, they inhibit the transmission of pain signals.

Since these drugs act on brain regions involved in reward, they can induce euphoria, particularly when they are taken at higher-than-prescribed dose or administered in other ways than intended, such as by snorting or injecting—which are very dangerous practices that greatly increase a person’s risk for serious medical complications, including overdose.

Dependence occurs as a result of physiological adaptations to chronic exposure to a drug. It is often a part of addiction, but they are not equivalent. Addiction involves other changes to brain circuitry and is distinguished by compulsive drug seeking and use despite negative consequences.

Read more about the effects of opioids on the body and brain at www.drugabuse.gov.

Why can’t I stop misusing opioids on my own?

Repeated drug use changes the brain, including the region that regulates self-control. This makes drug use extremely difficult to stop, especially alone. (Source: www.drugabuse.gov

The disease of addiction causes physical changes to occur inside the body. As a result, most people with addiction require long-term medical and psychological treatments that bring their body closer to baseline.  Very few people can be ‘cured’ through the sheer force of will power. Learn more about addiction at www.drugabuse.gov and find out about addiction treatment options available in Alexandria.         

Are opioids a risk factor for heroin use?

The CDC reports that there is a strong link between prescription opioid use and rising heroin use, with three out of four new users reporting they took prescription opioids prior to using heroin. Those who misuse prescription opioids often turn to heroin because it is readily available and cheap. Because heroin is now being mixed with synthetic opioids like Fentanyl and Carfentanil, the potential for overdose is even more likely.

What can I do if I or someone I know is addicted to opioids or heroin?

If you or someone you care about needs help with addiction, call the Department of Community and Human Services anytime at 703.746.3400 or call the Opioid Treatment Program's intake line at 703.746.3610 (Virginia Relay 711). Learn about treatment options for addiction available in the City of Alexandria

Educate yourself, marshal resources and play the long game. Understand that there is no quick fix for this problem individually or nationally. Also, strive to be nonjudgmental and compassionate; to behave otherwise only contributes to the pain that the person who is misusing is already experiencing.  You can’t fix the problem by yourself, but you can support your loved one as they navigate various resources and information that can assist them in recovery.  (Source: www.drugabuse.gov).